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Shamed into an apology

Nick Bryant | 00:35 UK time, Monday, 16 November 2009

The scandal of the child migrants sent to Britain's distant dominions was uncovered over two decades ago by a British social worker, Margaret Humphreys. But no British prime minister has ever delivered an official apology, despite repeated demands from victims' group. Gordon Brown now plans to do so sometime in the new year.

Following a report from a House of Commons Health Committee in 1998, the British government said the child migrant programme, was "wrong" and expressed regret. The Blair government also helped fund family reunions, along with the Child Migrants Trust, which had been set up by Margaret Humphreys in the late1980s to help victims locate their surviving mothers and fathers, or siblings.

In the gardens of the British High Commission in Canberra, I asked the new high commissioner, Baroness Amos, why it had taken so long for the British government to say sorry.

She explained that a number of state governments in Australia had delivered apologies, that the Australian national government was on the verge of doing so, and that the time was now right for Britain to follow suit.

"We've always said that this was an absolutely shocking period in our history," she said. "And there was a lot of thinking that went on in relation to this... it has taken us some time."

She said that the Blair government expressed strong regret after the Health Committee report highlighted the appalling treatment that many child migrants had been exposed to - physical, psychological and, at times, sexual abuse.

"We're now going that one step further and apologising" she said. "And this is the next stage in the process."

But when I asked whether Gordon Brown would have apologised had not his friend and political ally, Australia's Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, decided to do so, she did not really have an answer. She rejected that formulation, but did not come up with a convincing counterpoint.

Many will form the view that the British government has decided to act because the Australian government has decided to say sorry - delivering a national apology to British child migrants at the same time as saying sorry to the so-called Forgotten Australians, tens of thousands of Australians who were abused in institutions and orphanages.

The child migrants that I have spoken to go further: they say that Gordon Brown has been shamed into apologising by the Australian government, which has exhibited what they described as greater "moral leadership".


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